Big business is policing tax avoidance – what could possibly go wrong?
David Heaton's resignation from an advisory panel on tax abuse exposes the perils of hiving off tax avoidance enforcement Prem Sikka
The privatisation of Royal Mail is making headlines, but another form of privatisation is attracting less attention – of UK law enforcement in vital areas, such as organised tax avoidance. Now it is business interests that decide whether Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) can go after those involved in abusive tax avoidance schemes, and this includes those who are close to the tax avoidance industry.
The Gaar legislation came into effect on 1 July 2013 and is part of a trend of giving business a key role in law enforcement. Originally, it was intended to enable HMRC to challenge "aggressive" tax avoidance, but was soon diluted to focus only on the most abusive forms of tax avoidance. The flaws were noted by Lord MacGregor, chair of the House of Lords economic affairs sub-committee on the finance bill, who said that: "There is a misconception that Gaar will mean the likes of Starbucks and Amazon will be slapped with massive tax bills. This is wrong and the government needs to explain that to the public. Gaar is narrowly defined and will only impact on the most abusive of tax avoidance".
The Gaar legislation contains a "double reasonableness" test and requires HMRC to show that the tax avoidance schemes under scrutiny "cannot [reasonably] be regarded as a reasonable course of action". An avoidance scheme will be treated as abusive only if it would not be reasonable to hold such a view. So, if a dubious practice is widespread and established then it may well be considered to be reasonable.
HMRC is further shackled in that it can't easily go to the courts to enforce Gaar because it needs permission from a panel of experts on whether the arrangements in question constitute a reasonable course of action. The panel members are unpaid and this inevitably favours businesses that can bear the cost of seconding staff. In addition to Heaton, other members of the panel are Patrick Mears (chair), a senior tax partner at law firm Allen and Overy; Michael Hardwick, a consultant at law firm Linklaters; Brian Jackson, vice-president for group tax at Burberry group plc and previously tax partner at KPMG; Sue Laing, a partner at law firm Boodle Hatfield; Gary Shiels, a business consultant; and Bob Wheatcroft, a partner in accountancy firm Armstrong Watson.
There is no representation from NGOs and others who routinely expose tax avoidance. If matters reach a court, then judges need to take into account the opinion of the Gaar advisory panel given to the HMRC. The legislation says little about the public accountability of the panel.
George Osborne courted public opinion by saying that he found tax avoidance/evasion "morally repugnant", but the government's sense of morality is to appoint foxes to guard the henhouse. No doubt, members of the Gaar panel are devoted to serving the public interest, but their conception of the public interest is likely to be informed by their business and professional interests, especially as their profits and bonuses are dependent on serving clients. So who is safeguarding the interests of the ordinary people?
Neoliberals would defend the current arrangements by arguing that government needs people who know the practices and are thus best suited to be the guards. If that logic had any substance then those falling on hard times or suffering because of the bedroom tax should be deciding who can reasonably be prosecuted for, say, benefit fraud. But that is not the case. The government has mobilised the full might of the state to tackle benefit fraud estimated to be around £1.9bn a year, but the same does not apply to tax avoidance/evasion running at between £35bn and £100bn a year.